Tony Bennett is fond of saying that it takes ten years for a singer to master their technique on-stage in live concerts. It’s not terribly difficult to understand why. You need a considerable amount of time and energy to adjust to so many different factors while en route to possible stardom.
From working within the acoustics of a venue to overcoming any nerves or serious stagefright while performing to learning how to gauge the audience’s reaction to your singing, especially if you’re tanking, to building a reputation as a strong live performer so you can get booked in bigger venues to developing a smooth rapport while conversing with paying customers to putting together a killer setlist and impressing the hell out of attending talent scouts and record company bigwigs, there are so many variables that can make or break an aspiring performer.
With so much competition and adversity standing in one’s path to greatness, and no guarantees they can be overcome, nonetheless it makes sense that only those with the talent, the networking skills and the perseverance ultimately stand to have the best chance at a longterm singing career. Dedication matters.
But what about those who try the contest route? Why go through all that time-consuming hassle on the concert circuit when you can win over a TV audience over the course of five months and become an instant star?
Ever since American Idol’s debut season ten years ago, many aspiring pop stars have done just that. And many have found out the hard way that doing the show is no replacement for old-fashioned hard work. Even winning is no guarantee for longevity.
While the show can take legitimate credit for discovering Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, the two most successful contestants in AI history who continue to thrive long after their breakthrough victories, the vast majority of participants have failed to either generate or maintain the same momentum.
Which brings us to America’s Got Talent. Now in its seventh season, this glorified Gong Show isn’t solely about warblers. It’s also about jugglers and magicians, acrobats and freak shows, cloggers and jazz dancers, stand-up comics and impressionists, and any other Vaudevillian act you can think of. Unlike Idol and The X Factor, the winner isn’t guaranteed a national platform like a big record deal. Nope, they get a million bucks in prize money (really $30000 a year for each of the next 40 years or a lump sum far less than a million, depending on their age and preference, all before taxes) and a headlining gig in Las Vegas (not to mention a brief American tour with the nine runners-up).
In a lot of ways, AGT is like So You Think You Can Dance and America’s Next Top Model in terms of pop culture impact. Unlike American Idol where the winner becomes a national celebrity and commences their recording career on a strong note (at least commercially), the champions of the other programs pretty much disappear from the spotlight and are rarely heard from again (Adrienne Curry, notwithstanding). Quick, name any of the other winners of either of those three shows without thinking.
You can’t do it, can you? And therein lies the problem with AGT. Despite new judge Howard Stern’s insistence that he’s determined to help find a superstar this season (good luck with that), the show’s track record hasn’t been terribly inspiring on this front. (Yes, season two winner, the singing ventriloquist Terry Fator, as my mom constantly reminds me, is still working in Vegas. But how many people remember him? Is he really a big draw in the land of CSI? Is Wayne Newton worried?)
Despite all the various acts who’ve auditioned, every winner has been a singer which, when you think about it, defeats the whole purpose of the show. Why bother having all those unusual performers if the audience is always going to prefer a tunesmith?
Unlike Idol, AGT winners have failed to breakthrough with a big album or single. Bianca Ryan, the 11-year-old cutie who was the first season winner, released her self-titled debut in the fall of 2006, just months after her victory on the show. Domestically, the album has only sold roughly 100000 copies (another 200000 worldwide). By comparison, Idol’s first winner, Kelly Clarkson, has sold almost 3 million copies of Thankful. (The second album, Breakaway, has sold 6 million. All her other albums have each gone at least Gold in the States.)
Since then, Ryan has released two Christmas albums which both failed to chart. On the plus side, she had one hit single in Holland. (Yes, Ryan is still relatively young (she’s 17 now) but that’s not a great start especially when you would expect a much bigger boost from a network TV show.) Meanwhile, season three winner Neal E. Boyd, the opera singer, has only moved 6000 units of his only album, My American Dream, which was issued in 2009.
Season five winner Kevin Skinner, a country singer, hasn’t fared any better. Both his studio debut and his live record were complete flops. Neither charted on Billboard. By comparison, that year’s runner-up, the astounding opera sensation Jackie Evancho has released four albums that have collectively sold close to 2 million domestically. Half of those sales were for her first Christmas album, O Holy Night, her biggest seller. So far, the 12-year-old prodigy has one platinum CD and one gold CD. She remains the only singer in AGT history to become an actual success in terms of RIAA certification.
Finally, there’s last year’s winner, the loungy Landau Eugene Murphy Jr., whose first release has only sold close to 50000 copies.
After watching the first four weeks of audition shows this season, one would be extremely hardpressed at this point to pick a breakout act that would rival the few megastars who got a major push through Idol and continue to thrive today, not all of whom actually won in their respective years. I mean who believes the old rapper with the Casio or the jackass who gets hit in the nuts or any of the singing acts (including the Goth kid who sounds like a castrato) are going to have the same kind of fulfilling, longterm careers as those performers who prefer the Tony Bennett approach?
Not helping matters are the judges who often fill these vulnerable, desperate people with inflated platitudes and tired cliches. (How many times has Howie Mandel told someone they’re a star and it was actually true?) I’ve long defended and praised Howard Stern in this space but he’s already used the “you blew the roof off the place” canard on three different occasions already. He’s also been way too impressed at times with lousy performers. (Honestly, what was so great about that bad impressionist who had cartoonish pictures of the judges on his iPad? He sounded nothing like the people he was imitating.)
Yes, I’ll concede that Stern’s presence on the show has been welcome. (I always enjoy seeing him on TV, flaws and all.) He’s not a self-centred jerk like Piers Morgan and despite the sometimes overwrought praise and questionable decisions he makes, he’s generally spot-on with his views. Plus, he’s very funny. (Bringing his Dad on-stage to straighten out a bad singer was priceless.)
He also has a heart. Even though he did absolutely nothing wrong regarding that terrible 7-year-old rapper, Mir Money, when the kid started crying he went on-stage, comforted him and made sure he was ok. But voting “yes” just because he felt bad about what happened is a Paula Abdul move. The sad truth is the kid wasn’t good enough for Vegas.
Let’s be honest. There have been some very talented auditions this year as there have always been since the start of this pointless series. A lot of good, decent people who live and breathe their crafts are quite thankful, I’m sure, for the opportunity to be seen on a high-profile American program. Many of us root for them as they give their all. But if the whole point is to give these hard-luck amateurs national exposure with the hope that any one of them, not just the winner, will establish worthy careers out of this whole exercise, then based on the entire history of this series, the delusional ones aren’t the contestants.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, June 7, 2012